Extreme back pain was the first clue.

Yang Zhang, associate professor of urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech, was on vacation with his wife and twin daughters in New England in July 2021 when sudden, stabbing back pain sent him to a nearby urgent care.

Once he returned home, he learned what was happening. Though he had had chronic kidney disease since he was a teenager, his kidney function had taken a significant nosedive. It was functioning at only 20 percent and was deteriorating quickly.

It wasn’t long before Zhang started dialysis. He could do it from home for eight hours a day while at the same time teaching, doing research, and taking care of other work.

But traveling around Virginia and to other states to watch 12-year-old daughter Sadie compete on her travel soccer team was out of the question. All other family trips were put on hold as his wife, Amy Wu, and daughters adjusted to caring for Zhang, whose diet was limited to foods low in potassium and phosphorus, such as tofu, peaches, apples, and fish. Wu stuck a short list of foods that Zhang could eat to the refrigerator.

A new kidney was the key to giving Zhang and his family their life back.

It happened with the help of a Hokie who did not know Zhang until she learned about his condition in a Facebook post in January 2022.

His transplant support team at the University of Virginia made the suggestion, and Zhang posted to Facebook photos of himself and his family and described his condition and his search for a kidney donor. He also wrote about his condition in a letter that many of his Virginia Tech colleagues and friends distributed.

He received 33 responses from co-workers, former Virginia Tech students, and parents of his children’s friends who wanted to donate a kidney.

He also heard from someone who he did not know: Annie Chalmers-Williams, the assistant director of substance misuse prevention for Hokie Wellness.

Something resonated with Chalmers-Williams when she read Zhang’s story. She had been interested in organ donation since she was a teenager when a middle school friend needed a liver.

Later, as an adult after several miscarriages and having a son, Chalmers-Williams said the value of life became more precious to her.

“When I looked at his pictures and zoomed in and looked at his kids’ faces and his wife, I heard that voice. It said ‘There’s your person,’” she said.

She wrote an email to Zhang explaining who she was and what was on her heart. After she hit “send,” the rest was a whirlwind.

Photo of Yang Zhang standing in front of a tree on VT Campus
Yang Zhang is associate professor of urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech. Virginia Tech photo.

Quickly, she was connected with nurses at the University of Virginia who handled donor requests for Zhang. A series of blood and other tests followed to determine whether Chalmers-Williams was a match and healthy enough for a transplant procedure.

Zhang waited. One by one, he heard back from people who had offered to donate a kidney but learned that their blood type was not a match or they had a pre-existing condition that disqualified them from donating.

“Still, my heart was so touched by the generosity, even them considering,” Zhang said.

Finding a compatible kidney donor is not easy. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration,  88,901 people in the United States were waiting for a kidney donor as of January. That is 85 percent of all patients awaiting an organ transplant.

In 2022, doctors performed 25,499 transplants for kidney patients, according to the administration.

For Zhang, months went by and in October 2022, he received an email from Chalmers-Williams asking him and Wu to meet with her and her husband, Travis Williams. Wu and Travis Williams also work at Virginia Tech.

Chalmers-Williams told Zhang and Wu the good news over breakfast at Our Daily Bread in Blacksburg — Zhang was getting a new kidney.

“From what I could tell, she never showed any hesitation,” Wu said. “It really touched me. I cried a little bit because it was too much for us. It’s hard to find a match. It’s kind of a miracle for us.”

In the back of their minds, they understood that donors can back out of their plans for a transplant at any time.

Still, “I could not even believe this was happening,” Zhang said. “I had to pinch myself that this was true.”

The surgery was scheduled for Jan. 27, though Zhang and Chalmers-Williams had a few other meet-ups at Our Daily Bread before that, exchanging Christmas gifts for their children and getting to know each other.

“I feel like this was supposed to be,” Chalmers-Williams said. “This was something that was on my heart, and it just made sense.”

Headshot of Annie Chalmers-Williams
Annie Chalmers-Williams is assistant director of substance misuse prevention for Hokie Wellness. Virginia Tech photo.

They both traveled to the University of Virginia for the surgery.

“I was scared all the way to the very morning of the surgery,” said Zhang. But “I knew the benefits outweigh the cost. I would be able to regain my life after this surgery.”

His hospital room was one room apart from Chalmers-Williams in the transplant wing. Sore and tired, they visited each other a few times after the surgery. Zhang had to have help from a nurse to walk.

He said he felt emotional when Chalmers-Williams walked into his room for the first time after the transplant.

“It’s a big procedure, and it really puts a toll on your body,” he said. “I feel like this person in front of me is weak and pale, and she became this because of me. I was even more appreciative.”

The day after the procedure, Zhang was able to eat any foods he wanted. No more restrictions. For his first hospital meal, he scarfed down meatloaf and roasted potatoes.

“It’s a really dramatic change,” he said. “I can now enjoy steaks, enjoy chicken breast, enjoy avocado and guacamole.”

Chalmers-Williams was discharged from the hospital after a few days. Zhang was discharged, but had to return several times because of complications and infections from the procedure.

Now he is back in Blacksburg where out of caution, he is quarantined in his home for more than six weeks. In late March, he returned to remote work at Virginia Tech.

His research in the School of Public and International Affairs is focused on flood hazard mitigation and urban planning, including ways that governments adopt flood policies.

Chalmers-Williams was back to work in mid-March and said she still felt tired. After all, her remaining kidney was enlarging, which took about 12 weeks.

She said her colleagues at Hokie Wellness have been supportive of her procedure and the recovery time that she needed.

“There is no greater definition of Ut Prosim than to say, ‘I have this extra body part that I don’t need, but perhaps I could save somebody’s life by donating it,’” Amy Epperley, who is senior director of Hokie Wellness, said, invoking the university motto, Latin for "That I May Serve." “I think that speaks volumes to Annie. We wrapped around her as a team to support her through this.”

Zhang, who also received full support from his Virginia Tech colleagues, said he is grateful to work remotely and continue advising his graduate students during his recovery. Friends also have chipped in to take his daughter to soccer practices and games and to keep both of his daughters while he and Wu were in Charlottesville for his transplant.

Chalmers-Williams and Zhang purchased kidney donor themed T-shirts that they plan to wear when they reunite in person.

“This whole experience really puts everything in perspective,” Zhang said. “I think this community is so wonderful. For a donor and for a recipient, it’s a huge undertaking for the entire family and friends. A lot of people had to step up to make this possible.”

Written by Jenny Kincaid Boone